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Chris Horner: A Big Kid and His Bike
 
By Staff
Date: 12/14/2006
Chris Horner: A Big Kid and His Bike
 

Guest Contributor: Sara Best

As Predictor-Lotto gears up for its first training camp on Mallorca in Spain this week, the Daily Peloton felt it was a good time to take a look at one of the team's star riders, none other than the ever-cheerful, ever-competitive Chris Horner.


On a cold, wet day in March 2005, American pro cyclist Chris Horner was grinding along Stage 2 of the Tirreno-Adriatico race which runs between the two coasts of Italy. About 20 kilometers from the finish line Horner's bike hit a section of gravel in the road. He felt the bike go out from under him and was immediately tossed into a pile-up of riders sprawled on the pavement. He quickly got up, didn't feel too badly hurt other than some pain in his leg, and decided to finish the stage. However, the next day, the pain was worse and after finishing third-last, Horner decided to play it safe and pull out of the race.

Horner was disappointed by his experience in Italy and, despite still feeling pain from the crash, vowed to do better a week later at the Setmana-Catalana race in Spain. He made good on his vow and scored two top-10 finishes before ending the race 16th overall. A week later, still unable to shake the pain, Horner finally saw a doctor and found out that he had raced the entire Setmana-Catalana on a broken leg.

That kind of determination and focus is what made Chris Horner one of the top domestic riders in the US in 2003 and 2004. It's one of the reasons that ProTour team Saunier-Duval signed him in 2004, and it's what makes so many cycling reporters and experts continue to list him among the top American riders to watch.

Horner has a weakness for McDonald's Big Macs and shakes. It's hard to find a photo of him without a dazzling smile. And those adorable freckles, flushed cheeks and dimples make him look a bit like an eight year old at summer camp. He's as all-American as they come. And with Lance retiring and Floyd's future uncertain, top American cyclists are getting harder and harder to come by these days. For that reason, Horner is going to have even more American eyes on him in 2007 as he heads into his twelfth season as a pro rider.

And it's that boyish quality that so many of his fans love most about Horner. He tends to act a bit like a kid, even during the most serious of situations. Before the final stage of this year's Vuelta a España, Horner made an announcement at the breakfast table to his younger teammates. He told them that what they really should be focusing on for the remainder of the season was finding the Starbucks in every town the team visited and reporting back to him about it immediately.

But one thing that Horner is almost always serious about is racing his bike. "I'm a bike racer. That's what I do," he has said. "I just love racing my bike." And he works hard at it, putting in months away from his family – like many American riders - training and racing in Europe each season.

Horner was born in Ukenewe, Japan (his father was in the military) but he grew up in San Diego, California where he began his cycling career in the early 1990s before turning pro in 1995.

After winning a stage of the Tour DuPont in 1996 riding for the NutraFig team, he was asked to ride in Europe with French team Française des Jeux. After three disappointing seasons from 1997 to 1999, he returned to the States to resume a stellar domestic career, riding with Mercury in 2000, Prime Alliance in 2002, Saturn in 2003 and Webcor Builders in 2004. Midway through 2004 he signed with Saunier-Duval to take another shot at racing in Europe.

Over the past few years, Horner has developed a reputation within the sport for being a bit cocky. His prediction that he would win the 2003 T-Mobile International, and his statement that he was at the 2004 Dodge Tour de Georgia "to win," even when going up against riders like Lance Armstrong, Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt, have sometimes put a bad taste in the mouths of fans. And Horner's trademark "bike spike" – when he wins he has been known to lift his bike over his head, throw it to the ground, then scream like a madman on the podium – has been viewed by many as sheer arrogance rather than mere excitement.

A reporter for the International Herald Tribune who interviewed Horner back in 1997 went as far as to say that the new young cyclist from San Diego - then sporting a blond ponytail – even physically resembled the two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon who was often criticized for his arrogant demeanor. Anyone who has actually met Horner, however, is surprised and confused by the reputation he's garnered. Generally, those who have spent any time with Horner describe him as "refreshingly honest", "a straight shooter", and "a ray of sunshine in a sometimes dour sea of riders."

Horner takes his work as a bike racer very seriously. He is pragmatic and candid about how he sees himself stacking up against his competitors. He has no time for either false modesty or puffed up machismo.

At the beginning of the 2006 season Horner moved from the Spanish/Swiss Saunier-Duval to the Belgian Davitamon-Lotto (now Predictor-Lotto). Horner had enjoyed his time with Saunier-Duval. The team had supported him through the setback of his broken leg in early 2005 and had given him his first shot at the Tour de France later that year. He was grateful to them, but he was also happy about the move.

More English speaking teammates (Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evens, Freddy Rodriguez, Henk Vogels, etc.) made it easier for Horner to communicate with his team this past season, and made being away from home a little more bearable. "I get to speak English with the team, which is probably the main thing. When I was with Saunier-Duval it was different. Don't get me wrong, I like those guys, I would go back there, but it's just so much easier speaking your own language."

Horner began the 2006 season at the Tour of Qatar at the end of January. Next, it was back to the States for the Tour of California where Horner came in 2nd on Stage 2 behind Discovery's George Hincapie. Then came Paris – Nice in March where Horner came in 10th overall.

Several more European races led up to the Tour de Romandie where, at the end of Stage 2, Horner and teammate Cadel Evans played perfect tactics as they attacked Discovery's Paolo Salvodelli and Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde in the closing kilometers of the stage. They weakened the two and set up a final attack allowing Horner to escape to victory on the stage - arguably the highlight of his 2006 season. Horner finished the Tour de Romandie 7th overall. Horner finished 34th in the Dauphiné Libéré and then geared up for the Tour de France – his second – where he finished 64th overall.

Immediately after the Tour, Horner remained in Europe to race in the Vuelta a España where he came close to winning Stage 12. He went out early on a break but was pulled back by the Cofidis team – a move he found difficult to understand. “I heard the Cofidis guys were just put on the front because they missed the break. They were being taught a lesson, or something. That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard in a three week stage race. What were the sprinters’ teams doing helping them to bring it back? I understand bringing it back, but you don’t bring it back 60 kilometres into the race when there is 140 or 150 kilometres in the stage...I thought I would have a shot at winning the stage and gaining ten minutes, thinking ‘this is perfect,’ but then that happened.”

Horner finished the Vuelta 20th overall and said that he was satisfied, all things considered. After the Vuelta, Horner traveled to Salzburg to race for the US team in the UCI World Championships. Horner placed 47th in the elite men's road race which made him the second highest ranking American after teammate Freddy Rodriguez.

Horner finished out the road season with the Zuir Metzgete, the Giro del Piemonte, and the Giro del Lombardia before returning to the States for some much needed time at home. The American rider recently moved into a new house in Bend, Oregon where he lives with three children, Erica, Cayley and Garrett, and his dogs . He turned 35 in October but is showing no signs of winding down his career as a pro cyclist. Moreover, he has picked up a new hobby - cyclocross racing.

So, what the heck is Horner doing riding on dirt, carrying his bike over telephone poles, and jumping ramps? Horner just loves racing his bike. That's what he says when people ask him why he's chosen to race cyclocross at home this fall rather than take more down time before the road season starts up again. According to Horner, the sport is a fun way for him to stay active and in shape as the road season winds down.

"Cyclocross is definitely fun and it's easy, active down time for me. I prefer to keep riding through October and November before taking some time off in December."

Horner was bitten by the cyclocross bug in the winter of 2003 when he traveled to Portland to watch his friend, Megan Elliot, compete. Horner said "It just looked like a hell of a lot of fun…everyone was having a good time; getting dirty and muddy and afterwards getting together to have a big party. I thought, 'Damn, this is a good way to spend the winter!”

Horner’s not half bad at it either. He competed in four cyclocross races last year and really began to come into his own in the sport this fall. This season Horner even had a cyclocross sponsor - American bicycle and accessory manufacturer Specialized.

This November, he was joined by fellow Davitamon-Lotto teammate Freddy Rodriguez at the US Grand Prix race in Longmont, Colorado, he came in 7th in the Lower Allen Classic held near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and took second place in round five of the 2006 Verge MAC Cylcocross Series in Jamesburg, New Jersey.

Horner is known for his hard work and his determination to continue to improve as a bike rider. One coach, who has worked with other pro cyclists, remembers Horner saying, as he headed out for another hour of training (after already doing five), that he does that extra hour, because he knows most of his competitors don’t.

Make no mistake; Horner is out there to win. During Stage 13 of the 2005 Tour de France Horner and Cofidis's Sylvain Chavanel broke away and were racing for the stage win. But as the two pedaled into the finish, Horner refused to take the lead, knowing that Chavanel would draft off him and slingshot past in the final moments. Chavanel slowed down, seeking to force the issue. Still, Horner refused. He chose to sit back rather than race for second and waste any more energy that could be better used going after a win on the next stage. As a result, the two were nipped just before the line and Horner ended up in the 10th spot. Horner's comment after the race - "Second or last, it's all the same. They only put the winner on the podium."

Guys like Chris Horner are what the sport of cycling needs more than anything right now. In the wake of the Floyd Landis situation, Operation Puerto, revelations from Frankie Andreu, and the constant speculation around Lance Armstrong's super-human feats during his cycling career, the level of cynicism around pro cycling is at an all-time high. More and more, we fans of the sport find ourselves defending it against friends, family, and co-workers who seem now convinced that the sport is rampant with doping and they write it off as too dirty to be worth their interest.

Chris Horner reminds us of the guys out there who just love racing their bikes - guys who are out busting their asses six hours a day on the road. Who spend months away from family and friends year after year to pour everything they have – both physically and mentally - into making themselves better athletes. Who will ride on a broken leg because they simply will not give up. Guys like Chris Horner remind us of why we love this sport and why it's still worth defending.

PALMARES

2005 - Saunier Duval

1 victory
Stage Tour de Suisse

2004 – Webcor Builders/Saunier Duval

13 victories

Stage Tour of Connecticut
Pine Flat Road Race
Overall Tour de Temecula
2 stages and overall Pomona Valley Stage Race
3 stages and overall Redlands Bicycle Classic
Stage and overall Sea Otter Classic
Overall Tour de Toona

2003 - Saturn Cycling Team

11 victories

Stage McLane Pacific Classic
Merced downtown criterium
2 stages and overall Solano Bicycle Classic
Overall Redlands Bicycle Classic
Overall Tour de Georgia
2 stages Longsjo Classic
Stage Cascade Classic
GP San Francisco

2002 - Prime Alliance Cycling Team

4 victories

Stage and overall Sea Otter Classic
Stage and overall Solano Bicycle Classic

2001 - Mercury Viatel

2 victories

Stage Redlands Bicycle Classic
Overall Solano Bicycle Classic

2000 - Mercury Cycling Team

1 victory

Overall Tour de Langkawi

1999 - 1998 - 1997 La Française des Jeux

No victories

1996 - NutraFig - Colorado Cyclist

1 victory

First Union Invitational


Saunier Duval photos provided by www.saunierduvalteam.com

Other images provided by Celia Cole where indicated; remaining photos are property of Daily Peloton.


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